Mahraganat Music

Through the warren of Cairo’s unplanned slums, mahraganat (festival) music blasts from tuk-tuks, cigarette stalls and cranked up cellphone speakers; auto-tuned voices mixing with heavy electronic rap beats. The sound quality is low and the lyrics are unmistakably vulgar. Egyptians can’t get enough.

Sha’abi music (literally translating to the music of the ‘poor’) is the new anthem of a new Egypt, recorded in bedrooms, mixed on shoddy laptops and capitalizing on the anger at the country’s economic and political situation. The young singers discuss pride, community, sex, and religion, seething about their frustrated expectations of a better life through irreverent, comical and sarcastic lyrics like “The people want phone credit! Just phone credit,” a play on the popular 18-day Tahrir Square uprising chant: “The people want the fall of the regime!”

Walking down the street, Oka, Ortega and Shehta blend easily into the crowds of the Egyptian youth that have spontaneously amassed for the last two years at city intersections—throwing stones at police, demanding a better life, chanting for freedom, against Hosni Mubarak, against president Mohammed Morsi.

The scrawny 24-year-olds are a far cry from the country’s previous state manufactured pop idols’ well-toned muscles and Adonis faces. Dressed in tight t-shirts and even tighter jeans, they combine American rap fashion with Egyptian street swagger. Two of them sport gelled hair, the other wears a massive hat that covers a ‘fro. But their band “Tamanya Fil Meya” [the eight percent] has become the new voice of Egypt.

Tamanya Fil Meya knows the masses: They perform on rickety wooden stages in alleys and at impoverished weddings in their neighborhood of Matareya, (the birthplace of this music style). Their latest recordings are passed from phone to phone by bluetooth. Their YouTube videos have over 1 million listens, their Facebook page has hundreds of thousands of likes. (The state won’t play their subversion on the radio and the mass marketing companies won’t sell their albums in stores.)

Like the American generation weaned on Nirvana’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit," these young men’s lyrics are becoming the mantra of the Egyptian youth, and by extension the voice of the changing times in the Middle East, post-Arab Awakening. As the state can no longer contain the rage of the impoverished youth, the popularity of pre-packaged, predictable pop crooning about love and marriage are out, replaced by the uncontrollable and uncensorable shouted lyrics about life in the street -- the demand for dignity and recognition.

For decades, the most beloved Egyptian singer was Oum Kalthoum. At huge concerts and over the mainstream radio her haunting voice represented the everyman's life and longing for love; it was a rallying cry during times of war and a salve in times of hardship. But today, the manufactured pop beats of mainstream Egyptian artists are losing favor; the industry crumbled when the stars used their fame to buttress Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship and when they fell silent after the Muslim Brotherhood took power. Their lyrics no longer connect to the mainstream of Egypt, which grows poorer by the day.

Instead Tamanya Fil Meya packs shows, and are quickly gaining a regional following, flying to weddings in the Gulf. Though official government organs refuse to recognize them, companies are quickly catching onto capitalizing on their street legitimacy: snippets of their songs are being used in commercials and becoming the soundtracks for movies.

They are proud of their poverty and proud of Egypt, but they also know they are being stripped of their opportunity by the state. “We have four social segments in Egypt: poorer than poor, poor, middle class, and upper class. We are happy to be part of the poorer than poor, but we do and sing as we want,” Ortega has said. At the same time, channeling the dreams of the impoverished Tamanya Fil Meya sings about wanting more. And at least Oka and Ortiga are finding it, at one wedding they were the only people dancing in Nike sneakers.

As the world watches for the temperature of the Egyptian street, wondering whether the election of the Muslim Brotherhood represents a radicalization of the mainstream and why every headline from Egypt seems to be about clashing protesters, the evolution and story of this music is the answer:

Young people form 75 percent of Egypt’s population. It is in their basements, in their street packs, and in these lyrics and shows that we can really understand the future of the most populace Arab country in the Middle East, and trace the trajectory of the frustrated revolution. This is the anthem for the kids throwing stones: defining those who feel they are out of opportunities and have nothing left to lose.

Two young ladies watch the maharaganat shaabi singer Ahmed Karika, nicknamed Khashiba, from behind the curtains of an apartment in Matareya. The street events are almost purely male crowds as it would be culturally unacceptable for young women to join in the dancing and celebration. So women are usually confined to their own segregated parties, or a section of the street away from the stage.

Hundreds of boys and young men gather in an alley for a wedding celebration with the music of Salsa and Sardina. A wall of speakers pumps out the music that is mixed on a raised stage. People run in with flares, throw midgets in the air, and fire off hand made guns in between the dancers.

A young man gets a shave in Matareya, one of the birth-places of maharaganat music. Barber shops often double as meeting places and part time jobs for the artists.

A young man displays his friends homemade gun. Since the uprising started the police withdrew from the streets leaving individuals to secure themselves. Many of them buy these relatively cheap guns from underground workshops. They fire single shotgun rounds at a close distance.

Eslam Karika, a singer plays with the light as the structure for the nights show is set up.

Ahmed Karika, nicknamed Khashaba, gets ready for an evening as a micman. Ahmed's younger brother imitates him and will follow him to the same party later in the evening.

Ortiga, one of the most famous maharaganat singers in Egypt still sings for a relatively small wedding in his neighborhood of Matareya. He is part of the trio Oka, Ortiga, and Shehta.

Eslam Karika stands behind the stage of a promotional street party in Matareya. To drum up more business for weddings and shows the smaller artists sometimes put up free concerts in the street.

The simplest wedding parties require just a few speakers hooked up to a cell phone playing mahraganat music.

In another piece of showmanship someone drops pieces of paper from the top of a surrounding building, creating the unusual feeling of snow.

The micman who goes by the name "Salsa" or Strange Sauce whips the audience into a fury.

Even though the music isn't played on radio stations or promoted by any official institutions it is usually passed around through simple bluetooth phones.

Vespas are customized with big speakers to blare the maharaganat music.

Young men check Facebook in an internet cafe. Most maharaganat music is spread through cell phones and social media sites, especially Facebook.

Oka in the middle takes a break during filming 8%. One of the first films to feature maharaganat singers as actors.

Oka, Ortiga, and Shehta, the artists behind a shaabi music band called %8 are staring as actors in a film called %8.

Beside a wedding celebration a man tries to fix his tuk-tuk. For many youth, transporting others in their tuk-tuks is one of the few ways to get a little extra spending money. Youth unemployment is reported to be more than 13%, but the real number is probably much higher.